Street Talk: The new neighborhood watch

Power of prayer.
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With so many of us home these days, now might be a good time to reinstitute something that was far more popular in a bygone era: the Neighborhood Watch program. This time, however, there is a tech twist.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge last week urged the public to continue reporting suspected fraud schemes related to COVID-19 by calling the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline, (866) 720-5721, or sending information to the NCDF e-mail address disaster@leo.gov.

He also urged the public to continue reporting suspected price gouging to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office by calling (877) 765-8388 or reporting online at www.michigan.gov/ag.

“My office is actively pursuing leads brought to our attention thanks to these hotlines. The scammers know we are home more, and on our computers more, so they will try to take advantage. But that also means residents can be a very effective ‘neighborhood watch’ for phone and online schemes by reporting them.”

Birge said the kinds of scams already getting reported locally or around the country include:

  • Individuals and businesses selling cures, treatments or testing kits for COVID-19 that are fake.
  • Robocalls offering valid COVID-19 health care products, like masks, for sale with no intent to deliver.
  • Phishing emails from entities posing as the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Malicious websites and apps that appear to share coronavirus-related information to gain and lock access to computer systems for ransom.
  • Solicitations for donations fraudulently for illegitimate or nonexistent charitable organizations.
  • Medical providers obtaining patient information for COVID-19 testing and then using that information to fraudulently bill for other tests and procedures.

Even if a scam seems like it is run from somewhere outside of West Michigan, Birge said his office can help.

“Federal law enforcement has a long reach,” he said, adding the NCDF coordinates complaints with all U.S. Attorney’s offices and 16 additional federal law enforcement agencies, as well as state Attorneys General and local authorities.

And then, of course, there is another big scam opportunity looming on the horizon.

“With relief payments coming soon, we want people to be mindful that scammers are out there looking for ways to get their hands on those checks and personal account information. Remain vigilant, warn your friends and family about COVID-19 scams and report suspected fraudulent activity to the federal hotlines,” said Birge.

Sarah Kull, special agent in charge of the Internal Revenue Service–Criminal Investigation Division in Detroit, added her warning to West Michigan residents to watch out for scammers attempting to steal COVID-19 Economic Impact Payments.

“I urge the public not to fall victim to fraudsters attempting to steal Economic Impact Payments being sent out. The IRS will not call, text, email or otherwise contact you to ask for your information. This money is meant for you. Don’t fall victim to scammers,” she said.

Kull added that the Treasury Department and IRS announced distribution of the payments will begin in the next three weeks and will be distributed automatically, with no action required for most people. Information from the 2018 or 2019 tax return, if filed, will be used to calculate payment. Most individuals do not need to take any action, she said. Social Security beneficiaries who are not typically required to file tax returns will not need to file to receive a payment. Instead, payments will be automatically deposited into their bank accounts. If banking information was not provided, the IRS will send a check via mail.

She said the IRS will not contact anyone to request banking info, will not ask for confirmation of personal information to send or expedite an economic impact payment and does not require payment of a fee.

Blown away

Terrapin Care Station is postponing all 420 promotions, sponsorships and events in an effort to keep people safe amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Terrapin made the decision to postpone all activities related to the unofficial cannabis holiday to encourage social distancing and self-isolation during this time of uncertainty. The April 20 “420 holiday” is normally an opportunity for cannabis companies and consumers to get together and celebrate progress made on the legalization front.

But with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis pushing a #DoingMyPartCO campaign, in which people are encouraged to make sacrifices in the fight against COVID-19, Terrapin officials said they felt it was prudent to suspend any 420-related marketing activities. The firm said it will re-evaluate plans after stay-at-home orders are lifted and health officials believe the country has turned the corner in the fight against the virus.

Terrapin Care Station is a newcomer to West Michigan. The company in 2019 secured the former Kids’ Food Basket site at 2055 Oak Industrial Drive NE, Grand Rapids, as a new growing and processing facility and Terrapin’s first location in Michigan.

“Now is the time for us to do our part. That means making sacrifices,” said Chris Woods, owner and chief executive of Terrapin Care Station. “We understand that 420 is a time of celebration for all that we have accomplished in our efforts to end cannabis prohibition. But there is a bigger battle at our doorsteps today, and we must do our part to control the spread of this deadly virus.”

Cannabis companies have been allowed to remain operational as a “critical” service in Colorado and in most states where marijuana is legal. According to Terrapin, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock flirted with the idea of closing cannabis companies. But the order spurred panic buying, which defeated the purpose of social distancing as hundreds flocked to cannabis stores to stock up. The prohibition in Denver lasted just over two hours before the mayor rolled back the proposal, allowing cannabis stores to remain operational.

Recognizing that many are experiencing economic hardship and job loss stemming from COVID-19, Terrapin also is offering discounts on products. The Terrapin Relief Package will see discounts of at least 20% on some products during the month of April, Woods said.

Have faith

COVID-19 has disrupted just about every facet of life, including how (and where) people worship. The ban on public gatherings includes all places of worship and without discrimination.

And if they didn’t already have enough to worry about, it trickles into the health care arena, too.

This can be especially challenging for health care settings as they uphold a statewide ban on visitors.

The highly contagious nature of COVID-19 requires unprecedented precautions. Metro Health–University of Michigan Health officials said they are working to preserve spiritual practices while also honoring an obligation to the lives of patients and the safety of the community.

The matters of clergy access and end-of-life sacraments have been “carefully deliberated” by Metro Health’s COVID-19 Incident Command team, and Metro Health has allowed and continues to allow priests access to administer Viaticum for the dying.

“Metro Health has a long tradition of working with faith leaders,” said Steve Polega, chief nursing officer for the health system. “In addition to our hospital chaplain, Metro Health maintains relationships with congregations across the region. These connections are more valuable than ever in the era of COVID-19, especially as we approach a sacred time of year for people of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths.”

Amen to that.

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